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Obituary: Sir Michael Gambon, star of The Singing Detective and Harry Potter

September 28, 2023

Sir Michael Gambon was one of Britain’s most versatile performers.

While he achieved success on both TV and in the cinema, it was the theatre that was his greatest love.

He played many of the great Shakespearean parts, appeared on TV as Inspector Maigret and once auditioned for the role of James Bond.

And he gained an international following when he took over the part of Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter films.

Michael John Gambon was born in Dublin on 19 Oct 1940, the son of an engineer and a seamstress.

When he was five his father moved to London to work on the reconstruction of the capital after the blitz and Gambon attended St Aloysius’ College in Highgate before the family moved again, this time to Kent.

There were a number of small roles at the National

His father made him a British citizen, something that meant his future knighthood would be a substantive rather than honorary one.

School was something of a trial for him. “I have no happy memories whatsoever,” he said, and he quit at 15 to take up a job as an apprentice toolmaker with Vickers.

Something in him had always been drawn towards acting, and he became an avid cinemagoer. But it was not until his early 20s that he began actively pursuing a stage career.

A bit fat’

He began writing letters to various theatrical companies, enclosing the most outrageous CVs detailing his fictional prowess as a performer. He was eventually offered a junior job at the Gate Theatre in his native Dublin, which had failed to check his claim that he had taken the lead role in a George Bernard Shaw play in London.

After touring Europe in a production of Othello, Gambon moved on to the National Theatre under Laurence Olivier where he appeared in a number of spear-carrying roles alongside other future stars including Derek Jacobi and Frank Finlay.

It was Olivier who suggested that the young Gambon needed to broaden his experience so, in 1967, he joined the Birmingham Repertory Company where he started picking up meatier parts including the lead in productions of Othello, Macbeth and Coriolanus.

His role in The Borderers saw him invited to audition for James Bond

It was while buckling his swash in a BBC TV series, The Borderers, set in 16th century Scotland, that he was spotted by Cubby Broccoli and asked to audition for the new Bond film, On her Majesty’s Secret Service, following Sean Connery’s decision to quit the franchise.

While it may be amusing to reflect on how Gambon’s Bond might have looked – more George Smiley than 007 – he was not enthusiastic about taking it on. “I haven’t got nice hair and I’m a bit fat,” he told Broccoli, and the part went to George Lazenby.

His devotion to the stage paid off in 1974 when he was cast as Tom in Alan Ayckbourn’s trilogy, The Norman Conquests. The rave reviews for the production in the West End established his reputation as a comic actor of great merit.

Fantasy world

And there was further acclaim for his role as Jerry in Peter Hall’s production of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, which opened on the South Bank in 1978.

Two years later there was a masterly performance in The Life of Galileo, Berthold Brecht’s take on the life of the 17th Century Italian scientist. One critic described his performance as “unsentimental, dangerous and immensely powerful” and it was reported that his fellow cast members clapped him back to the dressing room.

The BBC production of Dennis Potter’s drama The Singing Detective, brought him to a wider audience when it was screened in 1986. A complex and dark tale, it is now seen as a landmark in British TV.

The Singing Detective made him a household name

Gambon won a Bafta for his role as the mystery writer confined to bed with a crippling skin and joint disease, who dreams of a fantasy world in which he also played his character’s alter-ego, the eponymous sleuth.

He played the violent gangster Albert Spica in Peter Greenaway’s dark crime comedy The Cook, the Thief. his Wife & her Lover in 1989, and throughout the 1990s there were a number of other leading film roles. These included Toys, in which he played alongside Robin Williams, as well as Plunkett & Macleane, Sleepy Hollow and Gosford Park.

He also appeared as Inspector Maigret in an ITV adaptation of Georges Simenon’s books which ran for two series.

Two penguins

But he never took film as seriously as he did his stage work, even his appearance as Professor Dumbledore in six Harry Potter films, a role he inherited after the death of Richard Harris.

“I can’t remember any of the films I’ve done,” he once said. “You go from one to the other and they all blend into a big mass. I remember Harry Potter because of the costume I wore, just two layers of silk and carpet slippers. Very comfortable.”

He continued to delight on the stage. There was an appearance as Davies in a 2001 revival of Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker and, in 2005, he finally achieved his ambition to play Falstaff in Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2 at the National Theatre.

He finally got to play Falstaff in 2005

In 2010 he was back where he had started, at Dublin’s Gate Theatre, to star in Becket’s Krapp’s Last Tape, a production that eventually transferred to London’s West End.

There were also TV appearances including the role of Mr Woodhouse, in a BBC adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, for which he received an Emmy.

He was much in demand for voiceovers. He was the narrator of an iconic Guinness advert featuring two penguins, lent his distinctive tones to a number of video games and provided the voice for Paddington’s Uncle Pastuzo when that character was introduced in the 2017 sequel.

Fell off the stage’

In 2015 he announced he was retiring from the stage because he was finding it increasingly difficult to memorise his lines. He had experimented with using an earpiece to hear prompts from the wings but found it impossible to concentrate on his acting.

However, his TV and film work continued, including the role of Private Godfrey in a 2016 film version of Dad’s Army, as Agent Five in slapstick spy comedy Johnny English Strikes Again, another TV Shakespearean turn as Mortimer in The Hollow Crown, and in his final role as Moses in the 2019 film Cordelia.

Away from acting, he collected and restored antique guns and clocks and was a classic car enthusiast, making an appearance on Top Gear in 2002. His drive in the famous “reasonably priced car” saw him take the final corner on two wheels. The producers were so impressed they named the corner after him.

The Harry Potter films brought him to an international audience

He was knighted in 1998 although, unlike some fellow actors, he never used the title. Fame meant little to him and he never sought the limelight, avoiding interviews whenever possible.

When cornered by a journalist, he was likely to spin tall stories about his life, including telling the Times that a new girlfriend was the 6ft tall daughter of a Botswanan chief and once informing one hapless interrogator that his career with the Royal Ballet ended when he fell off the stage.

Many critics have dubbed Michael Gambon as one of the great character actors but it’s an epithet he dismissed. “Every part I play is just a variant of my own personality,.” he once said. “No real character actor, just me.”


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